University of Western Australia
Susan Taylor Suchy
The social media marketplace in the ‘quaint’ Creative Writing classroom: Our terms for engagement
Mark McGurl describes the current state of creative writing programs as ‘rather low-tech and quaintly humanistic’ (McGurl 2009: 21). There have been calls for attention to the matter of engagement with digital technology from creative writing studies theorists and practitioners. For example, Joseph Moxley proposes that teachers should be teaching the new interactive gaming, video, wiki poems and fiction, and hypertext, and at the PhD level, he advises that programs could include training in ‘Intellectual Property, Social Networking Systems, Desktop Design, and New Media’ (Moxley 2010: 236-237). Tim Mayers calls for ‘explor[ing] the implications of new electronic forms of text distribution’ (Mayers 2009: 225). Diane Donnelly considers the ‘Google Generation’ (Donnelly 2010:11); and she reports that some institutions, including the University of Massachusetts Amherst, George Mason University, and Adelphi University are pioneering work in digital writing workshops (2010: 16). Other universities and their English departments, such as Purdue, demonstrate an interest in technology as can be seen by looking at their websites. Recently, Adam Koehler proposed defining and examining a ‘digital arm of creative writing studies’ (Koehler 2013: 380). He seeks to build a ‘digital craft criticism’ (2013: 379-397). More recently, Graeme Harper’s groundbreaking series New Writing Viewpoints brings to light a range of contemporary voices sharing theories, methods, and practices of the creative writing classroom, yet while some are talking about and becoming more digitally literate in their classrooms, the ‘quaint’ classroom persists .
There are many possible reasons why our ‘quaint’ classrooms function without much engagement with digital technology. Training and cost; lack of interest; and a need to maintain markers of difference are some of the issues. First of all, the use of digital technology requires a degree of training and funding for equipment. For example, to write ‘digital poetics’ in Elizabeth Losh’s UCSD class requires learning and writing basic computer code (Losh nd). The teacher must have a degree of knowledge in computer code is this case . Also, the divide may be related to the large part-time professoriate, economic, administrative, and funding issues. Secondly, there may not be an interest in the issues of digital classroom engagement that Moxley proposes, such as creating hypertext or writing games, and there may be a belief that there is not time to engage when we have other things to cover, and the focus of teaching for many is on the forms of prose narrative, poetry and play/script . A third issue may be a belief that engaging with the digital world threatens the position of creative writing in the academy and our hard won ‘markers of professional difference’ (Ritter 2001: 208) .
There are undoubtedly other reasons for the divide, and funding issues are for department and university administration to decide. However, as teachers in the ‘quaint’ classroom, we are not taking advantage of some opportunities that we have for engagement in the digital world that would not require much effort on our part, for as Selwyn explains, students are arriving at university already engaged with social media networks and acquiring knowledge in non-traditional ways . These students are highly connected, collective, and creative (Selwyn 2011: 2) . In fact, both students and teachers come with ‘connected’ knowledge that can inform the ‘quaint’ creative writing classroom in interesting and useful ways. This does not mean that we need to address hypertext or write games. We do not need to teach those forms. We can stay within the traditional forms if we choose (or consider useful ways of expanding those forms) and we can maintain our markers of difference; yet we can also engage our ‘connected’ experiences.
The focus of this article is on one of our markers of difference to give direction to an aspect of digital engagement that may be of particular use, and this marker is the creative writing classrooms’ relationship with the marketplace. As Pavlina Rada recently reminded us ‘most creative writing programmes define themselves as separate from professional writing’, and in particular, ‘market-driven’ writing (Rada 2012: 165, my italics). The distinction is an important part of our history, for the creative writing classroom has long resisted the idea of training for a trade or on training to sell, that is, our outcomes should not be influenced by market forces. However, while we may not be market-driven, our history shows that we are not unaware of the relationship of the writer to the marketplace, and today technology is changing the marketplace for writers . For example, the National Writers’ Congress ASA (Australian Society of Authors) conference in October 2013 recognized in its publicity that ‘the craft of authorship is at a point of historical change’ . This historical change is related to the digital and marketplace changes, and as writers and teachers, we have a responsibility to consider our classroom relationship with the marketplace and technology. In light of this responsibility and these changes, this paper examines the terms ‘social media’ and ‘social media marketplace’ to consider ways to engage that honor our traditions and benefit our classrooms by enhancing educational experiences without excessive cost or training.
Choosing the appropriate terms for this discussion has been particularly difficult. There are many people talking, researching and theorizing about many different elements of the digital world in terms of marketplace. For example, are we talking about a digital market, digital sales and selling, digital publishing, social media, participatory media, engagement media? Are we talking about digital storytelling, trans-media or cross-media marketing or storytelling, or about an electronic marketplace, global marketplace? Or are we talking theoretically about social capital, market economies, gift economies, and so forth? My mind boggled at the possibilities before I recognized that trying to engage with all of these terms and the various fields defeated my purpose. My goal is to encourage a comfortable, easy level of engaging and an equally comfortable and fairly simple way of explaining a new way of looking at the creative writing classroom in relationship with the technology and the marketplace. In researching all these terms and the range of people and fields, I was seeking something that quite simply could bring clarity to what could be done in the ‘quaint’ classroom in relation to the marketplace and a digital engagement opportunity.
First of all I would like to discuss briefly the term ‘social media’. I am looking at ‘social media’ because that is a useful term in regard to the networked connection experience that most bring to class. To begin, we can understand with the term ‘social media’ that we are talking about something in the digital world. ‘Social media’, which includes Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, wikis, and so forth, can usefully be described as the tools with which we engage and talk online, but ‘social media’ is more than that. A helpful business definition describes ‘social media’ as
In relation to creative writing, what I have found most useful for understanding the basic idea behind social media is Kaplan and Haenlein’s explanation that whatever we are doing with social media, buying or making (or simply engaging), what is most important is the understanding that ‘it’s all about participation, sharing, and collaboration, rather than straightforward advertising and selling’ (Kaplan & Haenlein 2009: 65). While their approach addresses a business perspective, generally we are seeing that this new relationship with the marketplace and social media, from a business perspective, is far more than advertising and selling, and this is useful when we think about our classroom engagement . That is, we might more easily welcome the idea of engaging with a marketplace that does not just look to advertise and sell. From a business perspective, engaging with social media means the line between creating an object, engaging, and selling is softened, in a sense, and from a creative writing teacher’s perspective, this means perhaps we can relax a little on how we view this marker of difference, that even if we aren’t teaching with a market-focus we can engage with social media without having to be market-driven, whether we are presenting artifacts or ideas or practicing how we present ourselves for whatever purpose we intend.
Additionally, the choice of the term ‘social media’ for our relationship emphasizes the social engagement element over the digital (as in digital media), and in the creative writing classroom we are not privileging technology but rather human interaction. In fact, as Graeme Harper reports, a ‘human experience is the primary defining notion’ of the workshop. He concludes that the focus should not be on commodification (Harper 2010: xviii). So if we are in a classroom not focused on commodification but in engaging to have a human experience, we should be, at least, talking about what is happening all around us. We should be observing and discussing technological change, impact and engagement in the classroom, and this includes social media.
‘Participatory’ is a problematic term for the creative writing classroom because of associations with collaborative work. While there is important research being done in the field of participatory media, and this research can well inform us, we do not want to infer that any one else need contribute (that is, write) our developing work, though we do garner feedback. In the creative writing classroom, students are not producing collaborative works.
Furthermore, I am not only addressing ‘social media’ usage. I am looking at the creative writing classrooms’ relationship with the marketplace, and so I am looking at social media’s relationship to the marketplace and this is why I am interested in the business definition. Quite simply, I am looking at the idea that the borders between selling and consumer, between engaging and maybe buying, maybe exchanging ideas or whatever happens, is less pressured (even if more challenging for sellers). Additionally, social media and social media usage does not necessarily have any relationship to market unless that term is also used, so we also need to look at the marketplace, and the idea of a social media in relationship to marketplace, or more simply a ‘social media marketplace’ . To better understand how we might regard our relationship to the social media marketplace, Jenn Webb’s ideas on ‘agora’ are helpful .
By utilizing research into how creativity works, Webb seeks ways in which we can improve our own writing and teaching practices and understand the place of writing in society. Her aim is not to define what creativity is but rather, by following Csikszentmihalyi’s work (Csikszentmihalyi 1988: 325-329), to focus on where creativity arises socially and historically (Webb 2012: 40). She proposes that the market can help us think in new ways about creative practice to help students deal with ‘the competing imperatives of art and the economy’ (2012: 45). From the idea that ‘exchange is not something separate from society, but a part of it’ (2012: 45-46), Webb points to the shared aspect of all markets as having ‘the property of being places for exchange and hence relationships’ (2012: 46), and as an example of this she draws from the ancient agora, a public forum with a range of functions that included social, civic, political, religious and military, philosophical and commercial encounters, a place of debate, dialogue, evaluation and discourse. Webb argues that agora no longer exists and that ‘the only markets that replicate those of the ancient or the medieval worlds are quaint replicas or places for hobby rather than conventional commerce’ (Webb 2012: 47). She argues that the global marketplace cannot be confined to ‘the narrow walls of the local market’, and she asks artists and writers to ‘look back to the agora as a metaphorical space and analogue for contemporary practice’ and believes that ‘the mass media creates such spaces too; but that this public space is ‘reductive’ (2012: 47) . Webb concludes by proposing that a creative work such as a book itself can be seen as having the qualities of the agora in that it can be a civic or political encounter, and it can generate a space for interaction and discussion (2012: 51).
Webb’s ideas about the agora have been helpful in thinking about the ‘social media marketplace’, but I would like to propose that while a book may have qualities of the agora, the social media marketplace is an agora, in the sense of the ancient Greek space. It is sufficiently wide enough for global human gathering, and we witness an international community in constant interaction. It is not ‘television and other forms of media’ (Webb 2012: 47) that have replaced the agora. Television is a one-way interaction, though we might have call-ins and Twitters feeds running across the screen. However, globally, the social media marketplace, which allows all the dialogue and discussion and interactivity, as a whole, is a new agora. Viewing the social media marketplace as an agora further opens up the space beyond being a place that is delimited to commodification (and the anxiety that produces for the creative writing student or teacher).
In summary, viewing the ‘social media marketplace’ by the terms of agora can clarify the meaning of the space and the relationship to the creative writing classroom. The ‘social media marketplace’ need not be viewed as pressuring a writer to produce for a market imperative. This might be regarded as antithetical to economist Richard Florida’s view of creativity, of privileging the economic over creative expression (Florida 2002). Economic outcomes can be encouraged if that is the pedagogical goal of a particular classroom; imagining possibilities for engagement with the social media marketplace can lay foundations for professional outcomes; or, if we primarily regard the creative writing classroom as a space for creative practice, or even therapy, there are opportunities that the social media marketplace can afford for that practice. There is far more that can be done in defining the ‘social media marketplace’ in relation to the creative writing classroom; however, this brief examination gives us a starting place for understanding that if we are not being pressured to engage in market-driven outcomes, we may actually open up the space to allow our students to be better engaged and better prepared with their writing and training for actual outcomes, and we can begin to see reasons for our engagement in relation to preparing our students .
Some reasons for engagement are that:
There are many other reasons for engagement and by examining both theoretical and practical possibilities we can start to explore more of those reasons. The following suggestions are not intended to fit everyone’s needs but are to open up thinking toward opportunities and benefits for engagement with social media and the social media marketplace . Furthermore, a teacher does not have to feel intimidated about engaging with social media and looking at the social media marketplace because, as Joosten stresses, referring to yourself as an expert on the subject is not a good idea because of the ever-changing nature of the medium (Joosten 2012: 26).
The next section offers some ideas on how to achieve the following pedagogical benefits:
Some practical possibilities for the classroom 
1) Gathering and providing feedback
Another option would be to give students an assignment that ‘explores effective uses of social media to enhance the class’ (Joosten 2012: 26). In a creative writing class, this could be as simple as a journal entry response or a brainstorm session to see what emerges. If the focus is towards marketplace and publishing outcomes, students may benefit from sharing these ideas with each other or with using their thoughts to further develop outcomes for their own projects. Have they been thinking about that engagement? Are they attempting to sell their work? What success have they had? Where and how do they promote their work? How would addressing a particular audience help their work? Would the class understanding their particular audience benefit the feedback? Alternatively, this could be a discussion on the benefits of not engaging in the marketplace at this stage of the work. Perhaps students are too quick to give away their ideas and development time is needed or there is a need for more selectiveness in placement of the work. Students are receptive to this and already share with each other and want to share in the classroom. When I brought up the idea of social media marketing to my students, they were enthused, sharing ideas and information. For example, one student said his friend had an online magazine and was seeking stories of a particular genre. Several of the students in the class wrote in this genre.
2) Increasing communication and contact
Another way to improve contact with our students is to examine our means of communication outside of the classroom. Required office-hour time will bring in a student; however, students may not engage so often with this space, and so if we as teachers are trying to reach them there, we may not be most effective. Even Email may not be the most effective method for communication. Email lacks the speed of communication that students can achieve with other social media. Depending what we want to communicate, and how quickly, will determine if social media engagement is important. Studies would have to be examined to determine if enhanced speed of communication could improve engagement, understanding of assignments, and learning outcomes, but personal experience demonstrates faster and improved communication where students are engaging on a Facebook open group page. I was able to reach students with class information more immediately. This offered a more public engagement/presence where everyone had a chance to check in and see what was happening. For example, in the Facebook group one could identify the number of members who have viewed a posting, and for teaching “attendance” purposes the identity of the student, so we can obtain feedback as teachers to see that the message has been read, as well as have dialogue. Also, we can private message (pm) particular students through this medium. Students should be offered the option to ‘opt out’ if they find such engagement awkward, but in this experience, engagement did not offer any problems and increased communication and contact.
3) Providing experiential learning opportunities
However, training the public intellectual is not the goal of all classrooms, nor is the idea of politicizing creativity, for as Graeme Harper stresses: ‘recognizing that creative writing does not primarily involve the creation of final artifacts is important’ (Harper 2012: 22). The goal of the classroom practice may not be to create complete or public works. As an alternative, we might examine where meaning in creation is privileged to help determine how the social media marketplace might be engaged and valued. So, another way to provide experiential opportunities is through consideration of our pedagogical needs and the experience of teaching. We might draw from what Dianne Donnelly calls pedagogical strands in order to engage Creative Writing in the Social Media Marketplace. In Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline, Donnelly builds on literary theorist MH Abrams triangle of author, work and reader to identify four major pedagogical strands for creative writing that she refers to as New Critical, Expressive, Mimetic, and Reader Response (Donnelly 2012: 18). Donnelly argues that
We might add social media marketplace to this list to consider the impact on the pedagogy of the classroom and consider if we are talking, sharing, collaborating or selling, all of which are aspects of the social media marketplace. An example of how this would be applied: if we privilege the reader, and we are selecting readings and materials related to reader response criticism, we would do well do look at what this means in the social media marketplace, and we could bring that discussion into the classroom, to explain to the student our own theoretical underpinnings and ask students to lead the thinking, applying their own experiences to the approaches we are using to examine creative work.
Additionally, while the creative writing classroom may be idealistically committed to the development of the individual, we cannot be sure if the student is training to become an accomplished writing practitioner when ‘most creative writing students will fail to become published poets or novelists’ (Moxley 2010: 236). Students may become appreciators and buyers of books or work in another part of the industry as Dawson has noted regarding the ‘traineeship’ aspect of programs. Even from that perspective, the social media marketplace can be useful in helping students to experience how new materials are being accessed, created and presented, as well as the writer’s role in the social media marketplace. One approach is to experience engagement with writers, publishers, editors and others in the field. Bizzaro supports the idea of teachers spending ‘less time telling our students what they should do when they write and more time showing them who they can be’ (Bizzaro 1994: 234). So engaging through the social media marketplace can help build networks in our fields, we can encourage connecting in a professional way (whether through LinkedIn where there is a more formal communication, or less formally with Facebook and Twitter) with students who are serious about developing writing careers or otherwise being involved in the field and a community. One never knows who will be working where, and we can selectively network today with the people we feel will benefit from the relationship and who we may be working with tomorrow. Also, for students this may offer a continuity that is lost with the modern university staffed with ‘contingent’ workers (Rifkin 1995: 190; Schell 1998: 12), or (more positively) global traveling leaders in the field, that is, the ability to continue a working relationship with a professor.
Linking-up through social media networks builds a creative community of writers who can support each other beyond the short life of the classroom. Whether this work will be paid or not is not the point. The goal is to build a network. When we go to a party to network, we do not engage by telling people we want to get paid because we are meeting them. We are engaging with people who share common interests. We are developing relationships and discussing work and this is what we do in practice in the creative writing classroom. Engaging with the social media marketplace offers more opportunities. For many writers, social engagement is difficult, but it is also necessary. Online may be easier for the very reason that they are writers and may be their most effective method of engaging and communicating. They may find they can share resources and opportunities more easily. These shared experiences can increase social capital in and out of the classroom.
4) Creating Cooperative and Collaborative Learning opportunities
Other group activities might utilize traditional creative writing exercises and assignments in combination with the social media marketplace. As an example of how we might engage using a traditional craft development exercise, I reference Janet Burroway. Although not every teacher’s choice of approach, she has been used in many classrooms throughout the world over many years and the numerous reprints and new additions of her work attest to the usefulness of her lessons which address common subjects in most introductory creative writing classes. For example, in Chapter 3, Burroway addresses voice and the development of voice as a process that takes place over a period of time. She points out that students have a number of different voices they use, such as when they speak to professors, parents, and adults versus how they speak to peers, although they may not be consciously aware of this behavior (Burroway 1987: 47). An exercise using the social media marketplace to create awareness in students of different voices they use is to have them observe how they present themselves on Facebook. Additionally, they could use Facebook as an exercise on developing character for their novel, in a character sketch to help bring a character to life. Even if they do nothing more than fill in the details that Facebook offers. For example, asking what is their birth date, where did they go to school, what questions the character chooses to answer or not answer, what groups they would join, who they would be friends with, what kind of posting they put up are ways of exploring character. A step further, creatively, might ultimately lead to the student using this page to promote a story or book. As an exercise, students have a chance to examine how they present themselves, look at the trail they leave of themselves, and consider how others view them in the social media marketplace; and this assignment could be approached from any pedagogical perspective.
We might also imagine how our own approaches could engage. For example, Michelene Wandor challenges many of the assumptions and practices of the workshop, and she provides a list of her own personal aims for creative writing pedagogy, which, she makes clear, are not everyone’s. In her classroom, all writing is done in class and read aloud (Wandor 2008: 212-213). There may be no space for the social media marketplace at this stage; however, when the class moves to discussion of possibilities for development of the text, then possibly genre, audience consideration, and placement of the work might well include discussion of social media and the social media marketplace. Engaging with the social media marketplace as a pedagogical approach might even help address the ‘ideological confusion’ Wandor describes in which the teaching either ‘overvalues the art’ or ‘overvalues the individual’ (Wandor 2008: 128). We might not be as concerned with the work or the individual as special but rather witness how the piece might sit in this new space.
In terms of revision, Mary Ann Cain’s revision assignment as a re-seeing of the writer in relation to the ‘textual, social, and material space assumed by specific genres’ (Cain 2010: 223) is relevant to our thinking about the social media marketplace. The social media marketplace, and positioning of a work to be seen in this space, even if hypothetically or theoretically, engages the student to go beyond the space of the classroom, as Cain proposes, and works with her idea of ‘thirding’ which ‘enables writers to demand and claim a different, revisioned representation of themselves in social, cultural and political – in other words, public – spheres’ (Cain 2010: 223). What is more public than the social media marketplace for examining if the creative writing piece ‘works’ and ‘how, for whom, when, where, and why’? (Cain 2010: 216).
To assure constructive outcomes, educators must be involved in the process or student outcomes won’t be positive (Joosten 2012: 16). Also educators may need to keep current of changing engagement and interests in different social media websites . There is a need for discussion on use (or misuse) of social media such as Facebook in schools as there are reports of problems, for example, in lower grades with bullying (Kwan & Skoric 2013). Equal opportunity is also a consideration. Not all students have the technology, and there are those that, for whatever reason, choose/prefer not to engage. Yet, for the most part, there is no reason why we cannot begin to examine opportunities.
While the traditions of the classroom shouldn’t be forgotten, we should consider how our valued lessons, methods, and practices can shape our relationship with technology. Technological changes do impact aspects of our lives, for example, the way people live, the way they exchange ideas and goods. Social media appears to be changing how business is done and students come with digitally ‘connected’ skills to our creative writing classrooms. We may be avoiding engagement with social media because we perceive it as a business practice and because we fear that if we engage we are approaching market-driven outcomes. However, by looking at the space for the engagement with social media and the use of social media in the marketplace as more than ‘advertising and selling’, we might engage in ways that honor our traditions and benefit our classrooms. By understanding that if we talk about the social media marketplace that we are not being pressured to engage in market-driven outcomes, we may actually open up the space to allow our students to be more involved and better prepared with their writing and training. Importantly, students can be more engaged and will bring interesting and useful ideas to the classroom if given the opportunity. The key to beneficial outcomes from social media and the social media marketplace for the creative writing classroom is to be creative and receptive. The teacher must set clear guidelines for behavior and assessment, understand his/her own pedagogical goals and reasons for engaging, and be clear about working within the traditional markers of the workshop. Social media and the social media marketplace offer opportunities for creative writing students and teachers to reach beyond the limitations of the classroom. This reaching should begin in the classroom and can be done in a way that honors our traditions and enhances the learning experiences of the ‘quaintly humanistic’ creative writing classroom.
Susan Taylor Suchy has an MFA in creative writing, an MA in literature, and a BA in history. She is completing a PhD at the University of Western Australia with a focus on the history, pedagogy, and practice of creative writing in relation to the marketplace and social media marketing.
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Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo